Getting a healthy crop of lambs on the ground and growing in the middle of a prairie winter takes a little more than good luck and an old barn. It takes healthy well-fed ewes, good facilities, lots of work, and good stock sense.
What’s A “Good” Ewe?
If you’re just starting out in the sheep business you’re probably going to be lambing out a small flock, maybe up to 50 ewes. Hopefully you’ve got good ewes. A good ewe is one that isn’t quite old enough to go to school yet, has all her own teeth, two good spouts on her udder and fleshy enough to be unfashionable in human terms.
Older ewes, more than six years old, tend to have more problems health-wise, and generally require a lot more care and extra feed to keep in shape. They also have a tendency to have picked up a few health problems along the way. They have more problems with their udders, lungs, teeth, feet and digestive system than younger ewes.
Ewes have to be in good shape if they are going to drop strong lambs. They should be in a 3.5-4 body condition score when they lamb. Body condition scores are difficult to describe on paper other than to say that on a 1 to 5 scale I’d have to class Twiggy, the 60’s supermodel as a sharp 1. TV’s Roseanne I’d class as a round 5.
I believe it’s also important that the ewes get enough exercise to maintain muscle tone so that they’re strong enough to push the lamb out when the time comes. Far too many ewes are kept in small pens with no room to exercise and often it’s these flocks that have the most lamb delivery problems. Give them old girls some room to jog and wander around between the feed bunk and water trough. Let them go out for a stroll in their pasture when the weather is not too cold. It’ll keep them stronger and probably make for an easier lambing.
If you do have some lungers or skinny old crow-bait ewes, ship them off or butcher them for dog food. If you do push them to lamb, don’t be too disappointed if they end up being nothing but trouble.
Indoor Lambing Conditions
Once the ewes are all sorted out you still need good facilities for winter lambing. That means you need a drop area, claiming area, and hardening pens.
The drop area and the hardening pen shed areas are where things can get down to minus 10 or even 15 degrees C (5ºF to 14ºF).
The claiming pens or jugs have to be in a barn where you can keep things at just above the freezing point. Both areas have to be draft and moisture free. If all you have to work with are drafty old barns, lamb your ewes in spring. If your barns are draft-free but so damp the frost is hanging from the ceiling, lamb in spring or figure out a way to reduce the humidity. Damp and/or drafty barns have killed more lambs than coyotes ever will.
One of my favorite ways to reduce the humidity in the lambing sheds is to shear the ewes before lambing. But you have to have barns that will keep the ewes warm when it gets cold and you have to give them enough feed so they can fire up their internal heating systems. If you’ve got good sheds and know how to feed, the best thing you can do is shear before lambing. If you’ve got poor sheds and you shear the ewes you won’t have to worry about lambing. They’ll all be dead.
Getting back to this crowding problem and space requirements for sheep during lambing: In the sheds it’s pretty straightforward. You need at least 15 square feet per pregnant ewe inside the shed you use for a drop area. In addition I’d give them another 100 square feet per head in the pen outside. I also wouldn’t put them into the pen until a week to 10 days before lambing.
About the same time I’d have the flock shorn, if the sheds were suitable. Until then I’d keep the ewes in some bush-sheltered area where they’ve got plenty of space to wander around. Our own flock has a 20-acre wintering ground where we hold them for 90 days.
Once the ewes have dropped their lambs they are moved into a claiming area. This is the part of the lambing system where you have to keep the temperature above freezing. Here we have our jugs or claiming pens. The jugs are four feet by five feet with 40-inch high sides. Each jug has enough room for the ewe and her lambs as well as feed and water. We also have one small corner of the jug blocked off so the lambs have a place to rest.
Unshorn ewes have a tendency to lie on their lambs if the jugs are too small. If the jugs are too big the whole system takes up too much room. The simple solution is to shear before lambing: Shorn ewes never smother their lambs.
Traditionally, the jugs have been made of one-inch lumber but newer barns use all kinds of material. The important thing to remember is to have enough jugs ready so you can jug between 10 and 15 percent of your total lambing flock at any time. And have the jugs set up so you can easily access each jug to move ewes and lambs in and out as well as feed and water.
The water has to be fresh and we found that alfalfa pellets make the best ration while the ewes are in the jugs.
Most ewes will “mother up” with twins in 24 hours or less. Singles often don’t need to be jugged, but 12 hours has most of their lamb identification problems solved.
Once the ewes are properly “mothered up” with the lambs, they get moved into the hardening pens. Here they get penned up with four or five other ewe-lamb(s) pairs for a day or so. This is where the lambing crew really earns their keep: If a ewe and her offspring are having problems finding each other, the lambs will usually starve in less than a day unless someone spots the problem and puts the problem pair back into a jug.
I like to see plenty of room in the claiming pens-at least 30 to 40 square feet per pair. It would be even better if they had 80 square feet per pair but that isn’t practical. The more the pairs are crowded, the more mothering problems.
As the new pairs get better and better at locating each other, we move them into bigger and bigger groups. Starting with five pairs, then going to ten, and then 20, always allowing for plenty of space-even if some of it is in an area outside. Usually after three or four days things are pretty much worked out as to which lambs belong to whom.
We used to have our jugs set up in our night-drop area with the hardening pens set up in an adjacent shed. At that time we were lambing between 200 and 250 ewes in a 40 by 26 foot barn for a drop area, with a 40 by 30 loose housing shed for a hardening pen and things were pretty crowded. We had the ewes night-drop in the barn, and set up our jugs as we needed them.
As more and more ewes lambed we had more and more room for jugs. Once the ewes were mothered up, they moved along into the hardening pens so there was more room for jugs. Things always got a bit tight at the peak of the lambing, about halfway through the first 17-day cycle.
You need good stock sense at lambing. You have to know enough not to rush in like an avenging angel to pull out the lambs every time a ewe breaks her water.
Work quietly around the animals and let them teach you when they need help and when they can handle the job on their own.
I like to let them do all the work ’cause I figure I do enough with haying and feeding and so on. The least they can do is have the lambs and look after them on their own.
Good stock sense also means you know how much to expect from your animals. Don’t expect too much in terms of production or profit because you’ll get disappointed sooner. If winter lambing is too much of a problem, take a serious look at late spring shed or pasture lambing, but don’t give up on sheep!
Also keep in mind that sooner or later things change, and these prices won’t outlast a 20-year mortgage.
Good luck with lambing and remember to save a little time for your good-looking partner and the rest of the family.
Peter Schroedter is the author of the book, More Sheep, More Grass, More Money, available from sheep! Bookstore.